When I worked in the NT Anti-Discrimination Commission a few years ago, one of the earliest lessons I learned was that there are always at least 3 stories in any situation: the applicant’s story, the respondent’s version, and the truth. I could embark on a reverie about multiple truths, the inevitable subjectivity of truth and so on, but that’s not where I want to take this post.
Last week’s Nine network Sunday program cover story, concerning revelations about alleged avoidable deaths in hospitals in south-west Sydney, provided an object lesson in the slippery nature of truth. According to the Sunday program, 18 of the 19 “avoidable” deaths that radio talkback empress Alan Jones’ “whistleblower” nurses revealed late last year had in fact already been detected and investigated by the internal review teams at the hospitals in question. Moreover, the 2 hospitals targetted by Jones in lurid tabloid “shock-horror” terms (Campbelltown and Camden) had records that were certainly no worse than other Sydney hospitals, and in some respects significantly better. The same was true of the Macarthur Health Service as a whole, and yet NSW Labor Health Minister Morris Iemma unhesitatingly sacked its CEO Jennifer Collins, apparently largely at the behest of Alan Jones.
The careers of other hospital administrators and clinicians remain under threat, despite the fact that Jones’ whistleblowers’ own behaviour and motivations seem suspect to say the least. One of Jones’ prime whistleblowers was even a member of her hospital’s Critical Care Committee. Yet she had never raised any of her alleged concerns about avoidable deaths with that Committee, and seldom bothered attending its meetings. Minister Iemma is apparently considering “compensating” Jones’ whistleblowers, even though none has lost her job or suffered any other measurable form of discrimination. In fact arguably it’s the dedicated hospital nurses, doctors and administrators of Campbelltown and Camden who deserve to be compensated, for the trauma and damage to their careers and reputations perpetrated by Jones and his elected minions Iemma and Carr.
Of course, it’s always possible that Sunday’s coverage of the issue is just as biased and inadequate as Alan Jones’ manifestly ignorant pompous bullying. Even if that turns out to be the case, the unfolding of this story highlights the extent to which populist governments in a mass media age are captive of powerful media opinion leaders, especially when those governments are led by cynical media-savvy demagogues like Bob Carr or John Howard.
Australian governments in the 21st century exhibit a parody of public accountability, responding in a cynical, ad hoc fashion only when pressured by influential talkback “gurus” or the Murdoch tabloid press. The public sector is hopelessly politicised and senior public servants are now invariably employed on insecure private contract terms, which make it impossible for them to provide, fearless, impartial advice to ministers. Wholesale corporatisation and privatisation of the public sector is also inimical to transparency and meaningful public accountability, as is the parallel implementation of private sector-derived “managerialist” techniques emphasising “productivity” and “outcomes” over both fairness and openness. The increasing willingness of bureaucrats, and even defence and intelligence agencies, to avoid telling politicians things they don’t want to hear is a direct manifestation of the decline of public accountability. That phenomenon was evident in the “children overboard” affair of 2001, and may well be a key factor in the still-emerging story of the intelligence analyses of Iraq’s WOMD capabilities.
Instead of submitting themselves and their administrations to effective public accountability mechanisms, leaders like Carr and Howard convey to voters an empty semblance of accountability by ostentatiously responding to the demands of pompous pundits like Jones, however unfair and unreasonable those demands may be. It gets them re-elected, but it’s the antithesis of good government. The demise of NSW Police Commissioner Peter Ryan at the behest of Jones and a couple of equally tawdry “whistleblowers” was every bit as disturbing as Iemma and Carr’s handling of the Macarthur Health Service “crisis” and the sacking of Jennifer Collins.
I wonder why the Sunday program’s revelations of two days ago have so far hardly caused a ripple on the public consciousness. The ABC website records a typically meaningless response from Bob Carr yesterday, but otherwise the story seems to have sunk without trace. Not even other bloggers have picked it up, as far as I can see. Do any Sydney-based readers know of other recent developments on this story? It raises a range of important issues deserving much more careful attention than they’ve so far received IMO.